A Waynesville town board meeting nearly went off the rails this week when members of the public faced the prospect of being hauled out for refusing to wear a mask.
The stand-off teetered on the brink of civil disobedience as anti-maskers weighed their options: mask up, go quietly, or hold their ground and see if the town would actually remove them.
The Waynesville town board first landed in the crosshairs of the mask debate two weeks prior. Around 100 mask skeptics packed town hall after learning that a local mask mandate was on the town board’s meeting agenda that night.
Town leaders were thrown off track by the backlash, however, and didn’t end up discussing it after all. Unsure whether the mask mandate was dead or just dormant, anti-mask activists turned out en masse again to the town meeting Tuesday evening.
Like last time, only a small number could actually fit inside the meeting room, with the rest relegated to an overflow holding area in the lobby.
The meeting went south almost as soon as it was called to order. Alderman Chuck Dickson made a motion for everyone in the audience to put on a mask or leave.
“I move that all audience members who wish to sit in this room be required to wear a mask. If a person doesn’t want to wear a mask or claims some sort of exemption, they are welcome to sit outside and listen, and if they wish to speak, they are welcome to write out something and we will read it into the minutes,” Dickson said.
After a short but awkward silence, the motion passed unanimously. “Mr. Mayor, you may wish to instruct people that there are masks back there for those who want to stay,” Dickson said.
All eyes turned to look at a cardboard box of blue disposal masks sitting on a ledge at the back of the room. Only a couple people rose hesitantly to take one. Instead, audience members started objecting.
“The reason we’re here is to explain the idiocy of wearing a mask,” said Bill Davis.
Dickson rose from his seat calling for silence.
“Mr. Mayor,” Dickson said. “I ask you instruct the audience members to refrain from speaking out of turn or addressing you or the board. They may speak if and when we have public comment.”
Audience members continued to speak up, however. Some said it was unconstitutional to be kicked out of a public government meeting. Others claimed medical exemptions to wearing a mask.
“Mr. Mayor,” Dickson said, rising from his seat again. “I’d like to make a point of order that all these comments are out of order.”
“I think you’re out of order,” an audience member countered.
“Guys, guys,” Waynesville Mayor Gary Caldwell said, shushing the crowd.
Caldwell seemed ready to drop the whole thing.
“Go ahead and sit back down,” he told Dickson. “Um, let’s carry on.”
But Dickson doubled down.
“The motion was made, and we voted on it that they be required to wear a mask,” Dickson said.
Caldwell capitulated, turning to Police Chief David Adams standing along the wall.
“Chief, would you like to go around and ask if someone would like to have a mask? If not, they are going to have to step outside,” Caldwell said.
Adams somewhat reluctantly fetched the cardboard mask box and made a stab at handing them out.
“Is there anybody that needs a mask?” Adams asked.
But there weren’t any takers, so Adams returned to his post along the wall.
“I have a note from two doctors,” audience member Leslie Adams said. “If I wear a mask, I’ll die.”
She said it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act to kick someone out of the meeting for not wearing a mask if they had a medical exemption. Others chimed in that they had medical exemptions, too.
Mayor Caldwell asked who had a medical exemption. Several hands went up.
“I do...I do, too….I have a medical exemption...and a religious one,” audience members called out.
Dickson said that didn’t matter and they would still have to leave, but were welcome to listen to the meeting over the speaker set up in the lobby, where around 50 people who couldn’t fit in the room were still stationed.
“Is this a communist country? Is it? Answer me that?” Larry Payne asked from the audience.
“There won’t be no outbursts, sir,” Caldwell said. “Or you’ll be out the door.”
“This is not a socialist country,” Payne said.
“OK, chief, you got one right here,” Caldwell said, gesturing for the police chief to deal with Payne.
“Please wait your turn. Speak in order. Keep it civil, thank you,” Adams advised him.
Caldwell then attempted for a second time to proceed with the meeting.
“All right, I’m gonna, the minutes before you…” Caldwell said.
But Dickson interjected again.
“Mr. Mayor, I’m sorry, but I’d like to be recognized. We just voted that if people wanted to stay in the room that they be required to wear a mask,” Dickson said. “Do I need to make a motion to have them removed from the room?”
“I guess you do,” Caldwell said.
“Well, I make a motion that anyone who is not wearing a mask please leave the room — or that the police escort them from the room,” Dickson said.
By now, however, Police Chief David Adams had left through a side door. Town Attorney Bill Cannon, who had followed him out, came back in and reported that the chief had stepped out to make a phone call.
“He wants to talk to someone first. He wants to get legal advice,” Cannon said.
An awkward silence set in, before an audience member piped up again.
“Mr. Mayor, will you be escorted out also since you don’t have a mask on?” Payne asked, pointing out that Caldwell routinely doesn’t wear a mask during town board meetings.
“Sir?” Caldwell said. “I can’t hear you.”
“Will you be escorted out as well because you are not wearing a mask?” repeated audience member Nikki White.
“Point of order, point of order,” Dickson said. “The comments from the audience are out of order.”
A couple minutes later, Adams returned and briefly consulted with the town attorney, who then suggested the entire board retreat for a closed door discussion citing legal matters.
Typically, public bodies must conduct business in the open, but there’s an exemption for attorney-client privilege — allowing them to meet in private whether it’s related to a pending lawsuit or merely to get sensitive legal advice.
The board filed out the side door into a private chamber, leaving the audience to talk amongst themselves. Some began giving recaps of the evening thus far over via Facebook live streams.
They also began debating what to do if the board held the line when the meeting resumed. Putting on a mask was a non-starter for most, but they couldn’t decide whether to leave of their own accord or make the town remove them.
Among the audience members not wearing a mask was County Commissioner Mark Pless. Pless happened to come to the meeting that night as a courtesy call after being elected to the state legislature last week.
While it would have made for a doubly exciting night if the town hauled a state legislator out of its meeting, Pless had no intention of taking a stand if it came down to that. Pless advised others in the audience to think carefully about what they planned to do before the town board came back in.
Pless said while he supported their freedom not to wear a mask, he cautioned that if they chose to engage in civil disobedience, it could jeopardize their ability to come back to a town board meeting and speak in the future, and they had to weigh whether that was worth it, he said.
It was ultimately a moot point.
When the town board returned, Dickson withdrew part II of his motion to have non-mask wearers escorted out.
“We did not publicize or announce at the door beforehand they would be required to wear a mask, so with that I am certainly happy with not asking that people be asked to leave,” Dickson said.
Cheers erupted in the lobby among those listening over the speakers.
The meeting then finally got underway. The first thing on the agenda was the standing public comment period that local elected bodies are required to hold.
The town worked its way down the public comment list, with several audience members taking the mic to speak against masks. But after 30 minutes, the town attorney declared the public comment period was over, upsetting those who had signed up but not gotten a chance to speak yet.
Waynesville is the only local government entity in Haywood County that caps its public comment period.
The town board has not publicly said whether they plan to drop the idea of a mask mandate.
Also yet to be sorted is the town’s emergency declaration powers. In the process of drafting the mask mandate, the town attorney suggested a rewrite of the town’s emergency declaration powers, which would give the town broader authority to declare states of emergency.
Until that’s done, the town couldn’t pass a mask mandate proclamation even if it still wanted to.
Dickson had urged swift action on the mask mandate at the Oct. 13 meeting given the rising case load across the country and impending downtown fall festivals. Caldwell replied that once the emergency powers were taken care of, the mask proclamation would follow.
“If this is adopted,” Caldwell said of the emergency powers, “Then we’ve got a proclamation.”
The anti-mask advocates are opposed to both and have pledged to keep coming to the town’s meetings.